Pacific Northwest Ballet has been wowing Seattle audiences for forty years. In that time they’ve staged forty of George Balanchine’s ballets, which form the cornerstone of their repertory, but they have also pushed the envelope with world premieres by highly sought-after choreographers and emerging talent alike. Current Artistic Director Peter Boal deserves much praise for shaping the company into the world-class institution that it is today and Director’s Choice, the final program of the season, amply demonstrates PNB’s impressive calibre. Let’s just say Boal chooses well. A triple bill, the program showcased two works from the Balanchine oeuvre: the neoclassical masterpiece Agon, and the glitteringly classical Diamonds, both brilliant for different reasons. The real stunner of the evening, though, was the world premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s first creation on PNB, Tide Harmonic. Wheeldon is one of the most desired ballet choreographers in the world and this new work further cemented his reputation.
Agon began the evening with its cool, avant-garde chic. Though it premiered in 1957 and is now an iconic work, the ballet seems perpetually modern. Balanchine’s choreography still startles with its definitive lines, flexed foot accents, shoulder shrugs, and indifferent formality, all accompanied by Stravinsky’s music. Perhaps it was just opening night jitters, but Friday evening saw several bobbles from the corps in both timing and execution. The soloists, however, fared better. Maria Chapman polished off a devilish turning sequence and, after Andrew Bartee and Jerome Tisserand rotated her through difficult balances en pointe, exited with a perfectly haughty air. Jonathan Porretta, fantastic as always, danced with particular vigor; he commands the viewer to watch him with insistent kicks pointing directly at the audience in the opening of his solo. Of all the dancers, Porretta seems to live and breathe Balanchine’s choreography with the most fluency. He stretches each movement to the maximum without over-exerting its perfect blend of punch and elasticity. The pas de deux, performed by Lesley Rausch and Batkhurel Bold on opening night, proved the most finely tuned section. Rausch’s impeccable technique allows her to slink through the choreography with cool elegance. Though redolent with sexuality, the pas feels simultaneously stark, and the two performed with a calculated passion reminiscent of a high-stakes game of chess.
Second on the bill, Tide Harmonic created a tumultuously aqueous world that captivated the viewer from the roiling percussion of the opening all the way to its stunning silhouetted conclusion. A work for four couples, the piece had no narrative, but it manifested drama in each pair’s interactions as well as the swelling insistence of Joby Talbot’s score. Simple yet beautiful costumes designed by Holly Hynes furthered the marine aesthetic with asymmetrical cerulean leotards that wafted thin tails of fabric behind them. Oceanic imagery abounded: arms swung in looping waves and undulated like sea anemones in a gentle eddy, and the women draped themselves over the men’s hunched backs letting their feet trail like seaweed tendrils. A sea creature emerged when the men rocked the women back and forth, their legs in an S-shape with one knee bent en pointe and the other hooked behind them. Continuous spirals, from the corkscrewing grasp of a hand to quick circles of the head, created an indulgent quality that seemed to enrapture the dancers as well as the viewer. Groupings emerged and receded throughout the work, but a true highlight was the unexpected and delightful pairing of Carla Körbes and Joshua Grant in a luscious duet. Randall G. Chiarelli’s sensitive lighting must not be forgotten: it immersed the viewer in Wheeldon’s world with shifting shades of deep umber, cool azure, slate gray, and then, of course, the final gasp-inducing silhouettes. Wheeldon is a true master of his craft and Tide Harmonic is a fresh, engaging work that PNB is lucky to include in its repertoire.
The precise classicism of Diamonds came as a bit of a shock (albeit a pleasant one) after the luscious contemporary feel of Wheeldon’s piece. Ivory curtains framed a stage filled with women in soft white tutus, their crowns and bodices sparkling with gems. Here, the corps looked flawless: all the women had the perfect amount of swoon in their waltzing steps, and their lines stayed straight even when almost the entire company danced onstage. As the lead couple, principals Kaori Nakamura and Seth Orza made the pas de deux seem rather arduous, but they regained their zip as soon as the music picked up in their solos. Diamonds makes for a perfect season conclusion, showcasing the breadth and strength of the company in glittering glory. Its opulence sparkles like champagne, and the whole ballet seems like a toast to the past forty years–honoring its legacy and cheering to its continuation. With Boal announcing his signing of another six-year contract in the program, the company is in good hands.
Directors Choice continues this weekend, June 6–9, at McCaw Hall. Tickets are available at www.pnb.org